“The Ass of the NFL”

In football circles, the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys are often referred to as “America’s Team.” This isn’t really an accurate term though. A more accurate description of the team would be “The Ass of the NFL.” What in the Sam Hill could this possibly have to do with left-wing politics?

The NFL is divided into two conferences, the AFC and the NFC. The NFC consists (sort of) of the NFL teams that have been around since 1920. The AFC consists (sort of) of the teams from the old AFL. The AFL was formed in 1959 as a competitor to the NFL, and by 1970 the two leagues were fully merged. The AFL-NFL merger is what produced the Super Bowl.

Currently, the AFC and NFC are further organized into four divisions each: East, West, North, and South. Each division has four teams, for a total of 32 NFL teams. The divisions have been reorganized and renamed over the years; the current alignment has been in effect since 2002.

In 1960, the Dallas Cowboys were formed as an NFL expansion team. At that time, the NFL consisted of 13 teams divided into Eastern and Western conferences with no further divisions. Cowboys’ founding owner Clint Murchison Jr. hired Tex Schramm to be the team’s first general manager.

Schramm, who died in 2003, was the Cowboys general manager for nearly 30 years. Schramm was a marketing genius. He formed the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. He got the Cowboys their yearly Thanksgiving gig.

But the most important thing Schramm did was lobby hard, and successfully, to get the Cowboys into the NFL’s Eastern conference. Originally, the NFL wanted to put the team in the West. But Schramm was driven to get maximum exposure for his team, and he understood that meant getting them into the East.

That wouldn’t have meant anything had the Cowboys not been winners. No one cares about teams that perennially lose. But Schramm didn’t just know marketing, he knew football too. He hired Tom Landry to be the first Cowboys coach. Twenty-nine years later, when Landry was unceremoniously fired by current owner Jerry Jones, he had five Super Bowl appearances and two victories to his credit.

But Jones has been glomming off of Schramm’s achievements. Jones does want to win — something that cannot be said about many sports owners, who don’t care how their teams perform as long as they’re making money. But that’s about where the credit Jones deserves stops.

Jones hired his college buddy Jimmy Johnson to succeed Landry as head coach. Johnson had won a national championship in college football as the head coach of the Miami Hurricanes in 1987. Johnson went on to win two Super Bowls with the Cowboys, and because of these three overall championships, some people have gotten the mistaken impression that Johnson was a great coach.

Tom Landry was a great coach. Johnson was a great motivator and a great evaluator of talent, but not a great coach. At the collegiate level, success is determined not by X’s and O’s, but by recruiting — if you can recruit the talent, you’ll be successful. If you can coach on top of that it’s a bonus, but it’s not required.

In 1989, the Minnesota Vikings made what was arguably the stupidest trade in the history of professional sports — a trade so monumental it has an entire Wikipedia entry devoted to it.1 The Vikings basically gave their entire complement of draft choices to the Cowboys in exchange for Dallas running back Herschel Walker. With Johnson’s acumen in talent evaluation, he was able to use those myriad picks to build the Cowboys dynasty of the 90s – a team so loaded with talent that even a doofus like Barry Switzer could get it to a Super Bowl.

In 2003, Jones hired legendary NFL head coach Bill Parcells to run the team and stop the bleeding brought on by his own mid-90s mismanagement. Parcells improved the team greatly, but Jones just couldn’t keep his sticky fingers out of the cookie dough, bringing in the talented but obnoxious team-killing wide receiver Terrell Owens against Parcells’ will. Parcells left Dallas to work his magic in the front office of the now-much-improved Miami Dolphins, while current Dallas head coach Wade Phillips presides over a soft team disintegrating into irrelevancy.

Despite all this, the genius wrought by Tex Schramm lives on, and that’s why the Cowboys are football’s most consistently polarizing team. Some fans want to them to win, some want them to lose, but everyone has an opinion. That makes Dallas the NFL’s moneymaker – which makes them the Ass of the NFL. But what’s the relevance of this for left wingers?

Capitalist societies pretend they’re meritocracies. Rich people promote the mythology that we all get what we deserve. Now, plenty of people know this is a load of horse dung, but the mythology is still shoved down our throats from cradle to grave. Why? Well, if it’s true — if we all really do live in a meritocracy as the privileged would have us believe — then none of us have any call to begrudge the rich what they have. They’re rich because they deserve it, and if we don’t like it, then it’s our problem to deal with, and we obviously just need to stop whining and work harder.

Of course, capitalist societies aren’t meritocracies. Most people in them who are rich made their money the old-fashioned way: They inherited it. But this simple truth has to be constantly denied, and to the greatest extent possible people must be diverted from thinking about it and instead fed fairy tales about hard work leading to “success.”

Currently, the Tennessee Titans are the NFL’s only undefeated team at 9-0. Everyone acknowledges them to be the best team in the AFC and one of the two best teams in the league (along with the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants, who currently sit at 8-1). But when you watch ESPN’s SportsCenter, or listen to national sports talk radio, the story is always the Cowboys. No matter what media outlet it is, they virtually always lead with talk about Dallas.

In a true meritocracy, being 9-0 would count for more than being sexy. The fact that the Titans are a small-market team wouldn’t prevent them from being mentioned first or second on SportsCenter. Tennessee has earned that. Even if they lose the remainder of their games and finish the regular season at 9-7 (an impossibility), as of this writing they’re alone among the ranks of the NFL’s undefeated. Only being the defending champs, as the Giants are, should be able to compete with that.

But we don’t live in a meritocracy. We live in a market-based economy where profits and market share are king. The Dallas Cowboys name alone generates more money in our capitalist society than can the hard work and success of the small-market Titans.

Prior to this season, ESPN ranked the 32 NFL teams based on who has the “best fans.”2 Other than the Philadelphia Eagles, ESPN’s top five of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Eagles, and Kansas City Chiefs contain four small media market teams.

But the real rankings (as far as the NFL, its advertisers, and national media outlets are concerned) are those from September by Forbes.com: the NFL team valuations. According to Forbes, the five most valuable NFL teams — which are also the five most valuable franchises in all of U.S. sport — are the Cowboys, Washington Redskins, New England Patriots, Giants, and the New York Jets.3 In case you hadn’t noticed, each of Forbes top five teams plays on the east coast, and three of them (Cowboys, Redskins, Giants) are in the NFC East.

You’ll know we’re living in a good society, or least a better one, when teams get more love for being perfect than they do for simply being worth $1.6 billion.

  1. Herschel Walker trade,” Wikipedia. []
  2. Matt Mosley, “NFL’s best fans? We gotta hand it to Steelers (barely),” August 29, 2008, ESPN.com. []
  3. Kurt Badenhausen et. al., “The Business Of Football,” September 10, 2008, Forbes.com. []
Eric Patton lives in Cincinnati, Ohio. He can be reached via e-mail at: ebpatton@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

4 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Shawn said on November 11th, 2008 at 11:55am #

    I’ve been a subscriber of your blog for some time. We don’t always agree but I respect your work as it is often thought-provoking and engaging. But I have a problem with an assertion you make in this article:

    “Most people in them who are rich made their money the old-fashioned way: They inherited it.”

    There’s two problems here if you want to use this as the premise for your argument.

    1) You need to define rich. Is it based on a specific level of net worth? Income?
    2) You need to provide evidence to support the assertion that most “rich” people (by your definition) inherited their money. Most of the stats I’ve seen suggest just the opposite.

    The 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances found that, of the wealthiest one percent of Americans, only 17% of their wealth came from inheritance. Further, a study by the National Center for Policy Analysis found found that only one in nine wealthy Americans gained their wealth via inheritance.

    http://www.ncpa.org/pub/st/st289/st289b.html

    Don’t get me wrong. I harbor no illusions about capitalism being a strict meritocracy. Capitalism favors those who already have money by its very nature. But the assertion you’re making here is weak at best without any evidence to back it up. In fact, the available evidence would seem to suggest the opposite of your claim.

  2. Fred Goodwin said on November 12th, 2008 at 12:58pm #

    Never let a few facts get in the way of a good rant . . .

  3. Eric Patton said on November 14th, 2008 at 2:33am #

    I actually wrote a response to Shawn, but it had some hyperlinks in it so, while I think such posts have to be vetted by DV first, I would think it would have been up by now.

  4. Wingnut said on November 30th, 2008 at 6:36am #

    Hi everyone! I’m a little late getting here, and my comment isn’t really overly-pertinent to anything, but I wanted to say some things about inherited wealth/opportunities.

    Inherited wealth, or what my mother once called “old gold”, comes in quite a few forms. And, things are not always inherited down the bloodlines of kinship. Sometimes, old gold is handed down through positions in family-owned corporations. The position is often “filled” by a good friend of the family which owns controlling stock in the company(s). This is called “cronyism”, one would suspect. Its the “opportunitizing” of someone. Its the obtaining-of a fully-fueled bulldozer that’s already well-aimed and powering-towards set-for-life land. 🙂

    Sure, this person has to fill the position and perform some corporate tasks, but it is sometimes a cushy position with many layers of safety nets and extra chances. Often, the money that provides the position’s “cloud 9 comforts”, doesn’t even come from the “old gold” investments of the corporate founders (founding-family blood-members)… it comes right from the company’s (sometimes hide-gouging…) profits.

    So, in this case, the “position” or role is old gold within the company structure, yet the position fillee… is not in any way blood-related to the company founders. But the fillee is “adopted” by the family via the cushy position, and is that a type of inheritence? I don’t know.

    I’m just playing with labels and terms here, but… gaining an exalted position in a sturdy family-owned company… probably “feels” like actually being adopted and privy to what feels like bloodline-gold (true kin inheritence).

    Ok, I wanted to show a potential gray area of “inherited” wealth… if I may. Best regards!